New composition strategies and the EMS Synthi 100

Williams, Sean (2019). New composition strategies and the EMS Synthi 100. In: Music and Sonic Art conference 2019, 31 Jun - 2 Jul 2019, Karlsruhe, Germany.


The Synthi 100 never lived up to its promise. Some of its features were terribly badly implemented, counterintuitive, and prone to failure. Three notable works made on the machine at the WDR Studio in Cologne – Rolf Gehlhaar’s “Fünf Deutsche Tänze”, László Dubrovay’s “Sohaj” and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Sirius” – are testimony to the composers’ dedication in pursuing their intentions despite the almost crippling pushback of the technology during the realisation process.

I examine some of Stockhausen’s innovative composition and realisation techniques in “Sirius” by means of practical recreations using the restored Synthi 100 at KSYME, Athens, and the original machine at the WDR Museum Studio, Cologne. The examination of techniques is informed by composition sketches and correspondence, and interviews with WDR technician Volker Müller, and intern Otto Kränzler, and the recreation of certain elements illuminates the details of the performance practice involved in making the original electronic music.

In order to illustrate some finer details, I have recreated some of Stockhausen’s original Synthi patches in Max, showing the potential for employing these in contemporary practice with rather more affordable technology.

The key ideas are how the design flaws of the Synthi contributed to the astonishing gap between cost and effectiveness of the instrument on the one hand, and its tantalising potential for opening up new kinds of approaches to electronic music on the other.

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